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Friday, April 10, 2009
Virginia losing renewable energy race to others
Washington Business Journal - by Vandana Sinha Staff Reporter

At least 10 times a week, GreenBrilliance staffers log another phone call from Northern Virginians searching for state financial help to hoist solar panels atop their roofs.

Each time, they give the same response: Financial aid for solar projects doesn’t exist in Virginia.

And that leaves the Herndon-based company with the same outcome: a Northern Virginia customer base it can count on two hands.

In a region clamoring for greater energy reductions, Virginia has not yet joined neighboring D.C. and Maryland in offering tax breaks or grants to help its citizens afford expensive solar panels, wind turbines or geothermal units.

“If the revenue is not there, you cannot just grow in Virginia,” said Sumit Bhatnagar, managing partner of the eight-person GreenBrilliance LLC, which does nearly all of its work in Maryland and D.C. “If you cannot grow in Virginia, you cannot employ people in Virginia.”

Indeed, renewable energy supporters warn that a lack of competitive incentives will keep a vibrant energy sector, widely considered the economic crown jewel nowadays, out of Northern Virginia’s reach.

“I get a lot of phone calls and e-mails from people who ask why Virginia isn’t implementing these programs,” said Ken Jurman, renewable program manager at the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. “They express a lot of concern, to be putting it mildly, as to why Virginia is behind the times.”

Maryland has been offering solar and geothermal grants for five years, lifting the cap for individual awards last July to $10,000, a move that maxed out its $590,000 fund hours after it opened to the public.

D.C. rolled out its first alternative energy incentives last month with a total of $2 million in annual rebates for the next four years. It has received about 180 requests so far.

Virginia did pass legislation authorizing state-funded grants for renewable energy projects, but hasn’t followed through on the actual funding part.

In January, state Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, offered a bill that would have set aside $1 million for citizens and $1 million for corporations annually for tax credits on renewable purchases — up to $8,000 per solar project and $6,000 per wind project. But after passing the Senate, the bill took a dive in the House of Delegates finance committee, causing renewable-energy advocates to switch their hopes to state’s $70.1 million share of energy-related stimulus money.

Some blame the bill’s defeat on Virginia’s $2 billion-plus budget crunch, an inopportune time to be offering tax breaks. Others complain about the influence of Dominion Virginia Power, whose interests they say aren’t served by renewable energy’s habit of lowering electricity bills.

“Apparently, they don’t see the benefit of renewable-energy sources,” said Jim Pierobon, chief marketing officer for Standard Solar, which estimates it would double its business if Virginia offered incentives like those in Maryland and D.C. “They will pride themselves at having lower rates, and there’s something to be said for that. But if their strategy is keeping rates low but doing what we have been doing for years and continuing to build coal plants, how does that make sense?”

Dominion said it supports its customers’ efforts to generate their own electricity and the rate of renewable-energy adoption still isn’t strong enough to cut into its profits.

“The sun doesn’t shine all the time, and the wind doesn’t blow all the time,” said spokesman Jim Norvelle. “We certainly assume they will be using some of our product. We have a very long way to go before it gets to that level.”

In the end, the issue often pits Northern Virginia against the rest of the state, which is considered more fiscally conservative.

“Northern Virginia is constantly being regulated by the rest of the state,” said Peter Lowenthal, executive director of Maryland-District of Columbia-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association. “While there’s the intent to do something, the fiscal conservatives have prevented it.”

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